‘Tis that time of year again.
When everything starts cooling down, every brand except professional sports make something pumpkin spice-related, and the sport that has the pumpkin-colored and pumpkin-shaped ball tips off.
Hard to believe we’re already to the point of the Golden State Warriors defending their fourth title with all the odds in their favor of a back-to-back, the aging Los Angeles Lakers trying to regroup under a new head coach and still blaming Russell Westbrook for all their woes, and Ja Morant already looking like the Most Valuable Player.
So let’s take a stroll down the path i’ve trodden for the last 22 years of my NBA writing life, and make me earn my nickname of ‘T-Money’ … and you guys take the chance to sound off on my predictions as the season gets underway Tuesday night.
The Boston Celtics surprised nearly everyone last year by going from talk of breaking up the team to racing into the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. But they’ll have to contend with Brooklyn and Philadelphia in their own division.
|Boston Celtics (56-26)||Boston has redemption on their mind, but needs an enforcer in the paint to pair with Marcus Smart, and I don’t believe Robert Williams stays healthy enough to be that guy. Pay attention to my column this week, because I believe I have that guy – and it’s not Blake Griffin, either|
|Brooklyn Nets (54-28)||First everybody’s leaving, now everybody’s staying – which was the best thing to do anyway. Glad people are honoring their contracts, because there’s enough talent for this team to make things difficult in the East. Expect Kevin Durant to return to MVP form, but don’t count out Kyrie Irving – he had plenty of time to rest.|
|Philadelphia 76ers (54-28)||This may be Joel Embiid’s team, but the make-or-break is on James Harden. PJ Tucker will give them a defensive presence, but if Harden hasn’t learned anything about his inconsistencies after 13 seasons in this league, his legacy may be a lost cause, may cost Doc Rivers his job.|
|Toronto Raptors (44-38)||It’s hard to imagine a Nick Nurse coached team finishing just above .500 after spending the last half decade turning heads and winning a championship. But I expect this to be the last season this group of Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby to be together if they hang in that neighborhood.|
|New York Knicks (42-40)||Sadly, Knicks fans are going to be calling for Tom Thibodeau’s scalp from about Thanksgiving forward, and are still talking about getting rid of Julius Randle on message boards throughout the summer and into the season. Gone are the days that a LeBron James, Steph Curry, or a Donovan Mitchell wants to lace ‘em up in Madison Square Garden. Jalen Brunson has got to wonder what he got himself into. Just continue to develop RJ Barrett and Immanuel Quickley, and hope that management gets their crap together to bring someone that can fill the seats and give the city its old buzz back. At least they’ll finish above .500 this year.|
Miami continues to remain a favorite in the Eastern Conference, but as always, Trae Young and the Atlanta Hawks will try and stand in the Heat’s way after getting a taste of the Eastern Conference Finals two years ago. The play of Young and new teammate Dejounte Murray in summer leagues opened some eyes and turned some heads – they hope that chemistry and momentum continues into the season.
|THE SOUTHEAST DIVISION|
|Miami Heat (56-26)||Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry aren’t quite done yet, though it seemed like it when Kevin Durant dangled himself out there back in early July. In what may be the weakest division in the Easterm Conference, Miami still has enough Heat to rise to the top, but they will be challenged.|
|Atlanta Hawks (51-31)||I’m being optimistic with the 51 wins, in the vein that I think the pairing of Dejounte Murray with Trae Young brings more fruits than people will anticipate. While they looked great in summer leagues, I still think the duo needs help in a big man other than Clint Capela or John Collins. Deandre Ayton would have been the best option for the Hawks, but if they’re gonna stay small, I’d like to see them add Christian Wood.|
|Washington Wizards (47-35)||I’m not ready to write Wes Unseld, Jr. off just yet, though I’m already hearing rumblings that the Wizards are wanting to move Kyle Kuzma, possibly on to the Nets. I believe under the right tutelage, Kuzma has a lot more to offer, but he hasn’t gotten a shake since starring at the University of Utah. They should re-pair Bradley Beal and Russell Westbrook, to be honest.|
|Charlotte Hornets (46-36)||LaMelo Ball has been amazing, I’m not gonna lie, but bringing in the third-string Ball brother LiAngelo in isn’t the answer, and Gordon Hayward is on the NBA’s milk carton. Steve Clifford has his work cut out for him in Round Two as the Hornets’ head coach.|
|Orlando Magic (38-44)||It looks to Jalen Suggs and 14 scrubs for Jamahl Mosely to try and coach. 38 wins is optimistic as the Magic may battle the Indiana Pacers for the highest percentage shot at a ping pong ball next May.|
Cleveland and Detroit may make the Central Division the surprise of the league this year, and even though the Bucks went 0-5 in pre-season, one can never count out Team Antetokuonmpo.
|THE CENTRAL DIVISION|
|Cleveland Cavaliers (55-27)||I think the JB Bickerstaff-led Cavaliers have the chance to be the shocking surprise of the league, more so than they were a season ago. And I thought that before they added Donovan Mitchell. Their height, their mobility, and shot selection has made them a joy to watch last season and will continue to be in 2022-23.|
|Milwaukee Bucks (54-28)||All apologies to Coach Mike Budenholzer and Giannis Antetokuonmpo, but you did manage to lose every game in the pre-season. That’s not what champions do (see Golden State). The Cavs are going to make it interesting for you. I see at least two Bobby Portis ejections this year from fights, but you’re not acting like the team that came back from two down against Phoenix.|
|Detroit Pistons (43-39)||I’m loving what I am seeing from Cade Cunningham, Jalen Duren, and Jaden Ivey. The fact that they added Kemba Walker and the shooting of Bojan Bogdanovic should make the Pistons everyone’s dark horse this season.|
|Chicago Bulls (42-40)||Right on Detroit’s heels will be the Chicago Bulls, though the rivalry will not be at the level of Michael Jordan and Isiah Thomas in the 1980’s. Lonzo Ball’s health could cost the team, and Zach LaVine may be getting tired of carrying his boys, though DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic helped last season. Rumors are swirling that DeRozan may be floated to L.A. for Russell Westbrook, which could help both teams. (I honestly felt DeRozan should have gone to L.A. instead of both Paul George and Russell Westbrook).|
|Indiana Pacers (30-52)||Someone has to mop the floor in the NBA and it might as well be the team from The Hoosier State – as in Hoosier Best Player? Hoosier next trade rumor? And as 29 other teams will ask at least 52 times, ‘Hoosier Daddy tonight?’|
To the Western Conference we go, where the Minnesota Timberwolves have the height of Timbers and the ferocity of Wolves in their revamped lineup. Denver is healthy again and Portland will try and re-establish its presence with new guard, Gary Payton II.
|THE NORTHWEST DIVISION|
|Minnesota Timberwolves (56-26)||It’s hard to bet against the Timberwolves, who are monstrously huge up front with the addition of defensive specialist Rudy Gobert to Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Edwards. Having Austin Rivers to replace Patrick Beverley won’t hurt either.|
|Denver Nuggets (55-27)||Having Jamal Murray back means Nikola Jokic’s reign as Most Valuable Player is likely over as he won’t have to carry the team. But the Nuggets have to solve the riddle that is Michael Porter, Jr. and/or lose the idea that he is their future. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and DeAndre Jordan give them depth, but it’s time for Aaron Gordon to step it up in his career.|
|Portland Trailblazers (44-38)||It’s make or break time in Portland, as the Blazers are likely to lose either Damian Lillard or head coach Chauncey Billups this season. Honestly, if we’re experimenting in the Rose City, I’d have gone with Becky Hammon instead. Also do or die time for Jusuf Nurkic.|
|Utah Jazz (36-46)||Utah had the chance to be the worst record in the league and make a run at Victor Wembanyana in next summer’s draft, but something tells me he’s going to be a San Antonio Spur when the dust settles. Being in Utah gives Collin Sexton a chance to show the Cavaliers that they chose the wrong guard (they didn’t).|
|Oklahoma City Thunder (36-46)||The Thunder will be in the basement with the Utah Jazz, and it may cost them Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. When will general manager Sam Presti stop tinkering and start cashing his draft picks in to keep butts in seats in a city and state that is all football?|
The Southwest has always been the West’s blue collar division, but make it Beale Street Blue and Grizzlies Gold this year as the Memphis Grizzlies are set to own the Southwest for the foreseeable future.
|THE SOUTHWEST DIVISION|
|Memphis Grizzlies (60-22)||I see the Grizzlies as only one of two teams with 60+ wins next season. You can just about guess who the other is. But Ja Morant is already showing MVP caliber play, and may take the award from Nikola Jokic this season. Memphis is so talented that they played as well or better when Morant was out with an injury in last year’s playoffs, and supposedly had Kevin Durant considering playing with them instead of in Brooklyn. Big things are coming from the Grizz – don’t hibernate on ‘em.|
|Dallas Mavericks (58-24)||The hope and promise, yet long suffering will continue in Big D as the Mavericks’ best opportunity went right on by when they lost out on grabbing Goran Dragic to pair with Luka Doncic. I expect some movement in Dallas of the the Mavs aren’t at least .600 by Christmas Day or the first of the New Year.|
|New Orleans Pelicans (48-34)||CJ McCollum has put his stamp on this team, Brandon Ingram is KD-Lite, and it appears that Zion Williamson has a fire lit under him like I haven’t seen since his lone season at Duke. Gone – or at least swept quietly under the carpet – are the rumblings that Zion is disengaged and wanting to move to Madison Square Garden.|
|San Antonio Spurs (40-42)||Getting the No. 1 pick and picking Victor Wembanyana may be the one thing that keeps head coach Gregg Popovich in the mix for another 4-5 years, though I can’t see him tanking to do it. The Spurs will just genuinely be that bad. Don’t tell Keldon Johnson that, though.|
|Houston Rockets (39-43)||The Rockets will improve over last season, but will still be bad enough to make Stephen Silas the first head coaching casualty this season. Expect Jalen Green to become the NBA’s Most Improved, however. Eric Gordon will likely be traded.|
This is the division that will duke it out to produce the eventual NBA champion, be it the Warriors, Suns, or one of those teams from L.A. Sorry, Mike Brown and Sacramento. No disrespect intended. Just reality.
|THE PACIFIC DIVISION|
|Golden State Warriors (64-18)||It’s almost a sure bet that – barring injuries – the Warriors are the odds on favorites to repeat as NBA Champions. As you watch Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson not even attempt to follow their own (or each other’s) shots for rebound attempts, Jordan Poole mature and Andrew Wiggins come into his own, the only question is if there’s even room anymore for Draymond Green and his antics?|
|Phoenix Suns (59-23)||How much does Chris Paul have left in the tank? Judging by last season’s flame out, not much, unfortunately. It wouldn’t have hurt the Suns to explore trading for Kemba Walker, and slipping back into mediocrity may mean trade rumors start swirling about Devin Booker, who may be the piece New Yorkers need to quit bitching about their Knicks.|
|Los Angeles Clippers (56-26)||If the ‘Load Management’ Team of Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, and John Wall can somehow stay healthy and pour on the offense, the stepbrothers of the Los Angeles Lakers might make some noise like they did when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin established ‘Lob Angeles.’ But, knowing the Clippers, they’ll fall back to being the red-headed stepbrother when it comes playoffs.|
|Los Angeles Lakers (55-27)||So much of the Lakers’ fortunes ride on the Mr. Glass-like health of Anthony Davis, who has the chops to be an MVP, but has been more of a liability for L.A. You can always count on LeBron James, but we all age. That leaves Russell Westbrook and Pat Beverley, who are the unlikeliest of stepbrothers – for the time being. Pray for head coach Darvin Ham.|
|Sacramento Kings (41-41)||I’m sure Mike Brown would have liked to have brought a few of his former Warriors players with him, even if it was to help run training camp. His expertise can help the De’Aaron Fox’s’ and Domantas Sabonis’s of the world, but I can’t see the Kings getting past .500 – they should have left Dave Joerger in charge and allowed him to grow the team, but that’s not ownership’s or management’s M.O. Prayers up for Coach Brown, too.|
Who do you have picked to win the division(s) – the conference(s) – the NBA Championship?
Shoot me a tweet at the Twitter account below!
Now let’s watch some basketball.
Tracy Graven is the Senior NBA Analyst for BackSportsPage.com.
He has written the NBA, done NBA Radio, and appeared as a guest for the last 21+ years for HoopsWorld, Swish Magazine, HoopsHype, the Coach Scott Fields Show, NBARadioShow.com, and is also tackling the NFL, NCAA, and will be pinch-hitting on some Major League Baseball coverage for BackSportsPage.
He’s spent 21 years in locker rooms in Orlando, Boise (CBA, G League), San Antonio, Phoenix, Denver, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta.
He also enjoys covering G League and The Basketball League, and provides content for the Owensboro (Ky.) Thoroughbreds.
A corporate trainer by day, he currently resides in SEC Country near Knoxville, Tennessee.
Reach him on Twitter at @RealTMoneyMedia